Screening Room: ‘A Compassionate Spy’

A Compassionate Spy is the latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams). This time, he tells the story of Ted Hall, the most consequential spy at Los Alamos most of us have never heard of. It’s making the festival rounds now and should be released later in the year.

My review is at Slant:

A gentle piece of work that’s about as far away from cloak-and-dagger skullduggery as could be imagined, A Compassionate Spy is in part the story of an idealistic teenager who risked the electric chair in order to keep American hegemony at bay. But even though Ted isn’t a household name, that story was largely told already by interviews Ted gave before his death in 1999 and a 1997 book, Bombshell, whose authors are interviewed here in order to fill in more background detail. Given that, James focuses more intently on Ted’s character and family…

TV Room: ‘Slow Horses’

The new Apple TV series Slow Horses is an adaptation of the first entry in Mick Herron’s superbly semicomic spy novels. It stars Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas and premieres this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

The six-episode series at times recalls The Americans, with which it shares an executive producer, Graham Yost, and an appreciation for the workaday realities of spies’ tradecraft, as well as a tendency to resort to sudden bloodletting. Slow Horses similarly breathes life into a somewhat moribund genre due to its grumpy antihero, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the nontraditional gaggle of spies whom he has to rely on to save the day…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bridge of Spies’

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks glare like they mean it in 'Bridge of Spies' (Dreamworks)
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks glare like they mean it (Dreamworks)

In Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, based on a tangled and fascinating true story, Tom Hanks plays a New York lawyer who gets swept into a Cold War scandal when the CIA needs help rescuing a U-2 spy plane pilot shot down by the Soviets.

Bridge of Spies opens everywhere this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Bridge of Spies sits at the lit-fuse junction of Cold War paranoia, the legal ethics of treating enemy combatants, the dividing of Berlin, and nuclear holocaust. But the work of three screenwriters—Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen—one of the era’s most astute directors of thoughtful popular cinema, and even Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks operating in pitch-perfect sync can’t wrestle this incredible, fact-based but ungainly moralistic spy saga into shape…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘The Green Prince’

The art of espionage in 'The Green Prince' (Music Box Films)
The art of espionage in ‘The Green Prince’ (Music Box Films)

Wars aren’t fought just by armies and weapons. They also need intelligence, which requires spies, who often need to betray everyone around them. It’s a tricky business.

The Green Prince, about a Palestinian who risked his life to spy for Israel, opens tomorrow in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

Restrained, clinical, and yet full-hearted, The Green Prince is one of the year’s, and maybe ultimately the decade’s, great spy stories. A two-hander about betrayal, shame, honor, and murky motivations, it includes nothing more than two men — one an Israeli intelligence operative and the other his Palestinian source — telling their part of a sprawling and many years’ long operation to undermine Hamas. Director Nadav Schirman stitches together their crisp, well-honed interview segments with a textured mosaic of surveillance footage and the fortunately occasional live-action reenactment into a nearly seamless whole. The result both outdoes the invented drama of many a spy thriller and raises more ethical quandaries than can be easily dispensed with…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Most Wanted Man' (Roadside Attractions)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘A Most Wanted Man’ (Roadside Attractions)

mostwantedman-posterThe latest John Le Carre adaptation is also one of the final film performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and just about nearly worth seeing just for him alone.

A Most Wanted Man is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

This elegant, sparse, and scrupulously acted but dramatically stunted adaptation is like Anton Corbijn’s last film,The American: tasteful in a Europhilic way and not quite human. Although set right in the middle of the post-9/11, post-Cold War chaos that supposedly put an end to the old ways of sleuthing, the film has us harkening back to spy business essentials. These operatives certainly make good use of bleeding-edge gadgetry; after all, one of the great draws of those old spy stories was their showing off of then-new technology, catalog-like. But the fixation is really on those classic skills of patience and mousetrap-springing that the modern espionage thriller has essentially jettisoned like Jason Bourne leaping out a window. It would seem gauche if one of these guys even pulled out a gun. That careful sense of professionals going about their work with grim diligence is some of the best of what Corbijn’s film has to offer. What it doesn’t present is a pulse…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Books: ‘A Delicate Truth’

delicatetruth1John le Carré‘s 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth, is a tiring piece of work. Not that it’s not a perfectly good read, because it hums along at a swifter clip than some of the master’s classic older works. But it has a sense of moral outrage embedded in the scandal-espionage plotline, about a rogue mercenary operation that goes south, that feels just plain worn out by the modern world’s venality.

My review was published at PopMatters, here’s a bit of it:

Le Carré has long operated as a shadow Ian Fleming. For all the lone-man heroics of the Bond stories, with their (of late) painted-on world weariness, le Carré‘s men and women operated in murkier territories. They root about in cavernous bureaucracies where the deadly game of spying, information-trading, and executive actions are handled by committee meetings no more dramatic than a gathering of insurance sales executives. The only glamour came from the occasional grim satisfaction of a task well handled. In A Delicate Truth, there’s even less for the characters to hang on to, or readers. The world has gone foggy…

A Delicate Truth is currently on sale just about everywhere. Here’s an excerpt.